Is there a human activity that demands more faith and perseverance than to transform four walls, some windows, and a roof into a home? Three new books depict the headaches, heartaches, and occasional joys involved in that process, suggesting that even as the mortgage meltdown continues to send people into foreclosure, our infatuation with real estate shows no signs of cooling off.
As do the many "shelter" magazines and TV shows currently in vogue, these three books—two memoirs and a novel—invite readers to judge, envy, admire, critique, and, most important, pretend. After all, it’s cheaper to imagine what it would be like to reside in a particular place than it is to acquire it—not to mention there being fewer papers to sign and fewer lawyers to consult. Publications celebrating the ab-fab interiors of those more fortunate and affluent than ourselves—a genre commonly called "shelter porn"—do more than let us glimpse how the other half lives; they also invite us to envision how we might handle a five-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bath Neoeclectic of our own.
The title of Meghan Daum's memoir about a 30-something real-estate junkie—Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House—perfectly captures the outsize role of the imagination in house-hunting. Daum describes what happens “when, for whatever reason, your identity becomes almost totally wrapped up not in who you are or how you live but in where you live.” Her fixation starts early, at age six; as she is driven to and from her first-grade class, she passes a house she loves enough to nickname "Malcolm Apricot Dingo." A few years later, Daum and her family move from Texas to New Jersey, where she begins attending open houses with her mother, who had resolved in her youth to live like the kind of person who gets "The New Yorker." Meghan comes to realize that a new life in a new town (or house) will let her be everything she was not in her old life in her old town (or house).
This attitude, which dovetails moving and reinvention, carries Daum through a rundown student garret to marginally less-shabby New York apartments (the settings for some of the essays that made up her first memoir, My Misspent Youth) to a farmhouse in Nebraska (the site of her entertaining novel, The Quality of Life Report) to another farmhouse she almost buys because she really, really likes the upstairs landing to, finally, a $450,000 fixer-up bungalow in Los Angeles.
In time our plucky protagonist learns that while neither she nor her domicile will ever be perfect, they are both lovable (men are involved), and the patient and persevering reader learns that Life Would Be Perfect chronicles an imperfect life—call it chick lit with packing tape and "For Sale" signs.
Joy Harkness, who narrates Diane Meier’s first novel, The Season of Second Chances, doesn’t fetishize structures with Daum’s intensity, but she learns a similar lesson about her own makeup. As the story opens, the haughty 48-year-old literature professor has just been offered a teaching gig at Amherst College, in western Massachusetts. As she prepares to abandon her overstuffed Manhattan apartment, Joy muses, "I have simple requisites, but I need a house that can take care of me, not a house I would have to feed, burp, dress and send to Yale." In Amherst, she stumbles upon—and falls hard for—a centrally located Victorian that requires extensive repair.
Several secondary characters—including a trio of harmless middle-aged men who gently prey on newly arrived single women, and an idealized mother/professor/decorator—recommend that Joy hire Teddy Hennessy, the town’s self-educated handyman. When not reciting Yeats from memory or edifying Joy on the merits of colors with names like Cooking Apple Green and Fresh Hay, Teddy restores her money pit to its quondam splendor. He also gives it contemporary flourishes, such as a bathroom cubbyhole where Joy can stash "my hair dryer… and shelves with baskets for my soaps and powders, shampoo and conditioner."
Through Teddy's eyes, Meier painstakingly (verging on painfully) enumerates the Queen Anne's architectural details, including its Carpenter Gothic door surrounds, art nouveau fireplace, and "anaglyphic" wallpaper, defined here as "white, thick and pressed into shapes that were vaguely Moorish." (Readers with subscriptions to Architectural Digest will relish the substance such descriptions give their musings; the rest of us will have to rely on Google.) Inhabiting the right residence at last, Joy finally learns to live.
In Daum's real-life world, the plumbing fails, the garage is condemned, and her dog develops a predilection for coyote scat. In Meier's fictional one, administrative assistants and their bosses become fast friends, property values fluctuate in your favor, and the contractor you've hired to rehab your house stays after hours to discuss art over HotPockets. Despite these fact-vs.-fiction disparities, each writer clearly believes that a worthwhile adulthood—what Daum calls "personhood" and Meier "real life"—is possible only when you own your hat and the place where it hangs.
Unlike Meghan Daum or Joy Harkness, Carol Eron Rizzoli had already shouldered the trappings of adulthood: she had a good job editing art books, a stable second marriage, and three grown kids. But as she reveals in The House at Royal Oak—her memoir about choosing, at midlife, a road previously not taken—Rizzoli suffered from terrible headaches. Almost equally crippling was her nagging sense of stagnation. She too wanted to become, or at least to live like, somebody else.
This ineluctable force eventually compels Rizzoli to chuck her rock-solid livelihood for a riskier one: transforming a three-story horror show of a house on Maryland's Eastern Shore into a postcard bed-and-breakfast with signature muffins. "Every silver lining has clouds," Rizzoli explains, contemplating whether she and her husband, Hugo, are about to make a gargantuan mistake. "At least they will be new clouds."
Clouds they get, and these make for engaging if pitiable reading. Along with "everything that makes old-house fiends swoon"—notably a hidden staircase and original floors—come a troubled foundation, unreliable contractors who spend hours at the aptly named Bull Crap Café, and a yard abounding with syringes and condoms. The Rizzolis’ marriage bends almost to the breaking point as the renovation budget exceeds their estimates for time and cost, inspiring the pair to coin the "4-6 Rule": whatever home-renovation project you tackle will take four times longer than you plan—and cost six times as much.
For anyone tempted to make a similar move, Rizzoli serves up a bracing dose of how-to; the book concludes with a list of "Eight Good Reasons to Start a Bed-and-Breakfast and Seven Bad Ones."
As the authors of all three of these books acknowledge, no mere bad reason (or bad lending rate, or bad joist) has ever forced those in the grip of realty fever to face reality. "I didn't just want to do it," Daum writes about one of her moves, "I had to do it." Meier describes Joy as closing on the Amherst house in a "psychotic stupor," her rational intellect shocked at the emotions that compelled her to buy. And Rizzoli compares her forays in rebuilding and remodeling to gambling, "an obsession with addictive rewards."
Because things work out so well for our protagonists, however, it's hard to knock their shared conclusion that a beloved building can make mere mortals bow to its wishes. Different routes to their obsession they may have taken, but all three authors wind up celebrating their own particular edifice complex.
Jessica Allen is a freelance writer (and contented renter) in New York City.